QUEENS OF THE QING DYNASTY Review: The Poetry of Queerness and Camaraderie
It will come as no surprise to observe that most countries/societies in the world are set up to accommodate and bolster a very narrow group of people, based on race, sexual preference, gender identity, class, religion, physical ability, and perhaps often forgotten, neuro-ability. Any person who finds themselves on the spectrum, outside of what's considered the neurotypical will find a system that has little time or energy to make them a part of society, especially once they are legally adults. What does the world look like to those who are left at the margins, who find the social and intellectual demands are incomprehensible, and who are often left to be abused not only by the system, but by other individuals?
That might seem like a bit of a pessimistic introduction, but Canadian filmmaker Ashley Mackenzie is much more hopeful in their sophomore feature Queens of the Qing Dynasty. Despite the circumstances of the main characters, the cold and somewhat bleak setting, it's a story of love, humour, strength, and yes, great strangeness and queerness in a place and time that would just want to proverbially shake its head and shake off that queerness. But it can't help but shine through.
Star (Sarah Walker), or as she calls herself, 'rats backwards', is a neurodivergent teen living in small town Nova Scotia. After what seems to be yet another overdose (this time, she says she drank poison), she's back in the hospital. But she's 18 now and the system sees her as an adult, therefore cannot take care of her as it had before. She is assigned a volunteer, Chinese international student An (Ziyin Zheng), who will advocate on her behalf in the hospital. These widely different people form a bond, and commonalities in a world that doesn't seem to have or want the room for either of them to be their authentic selves.
This might sound like the typical 'unlikely friends' story, but as she showed with her first feature, Mackenzie has a unique eye and understands how much space and place can make a difference to how marginalized are treated. Star seems to live in her own world, the understanding of which only she has the key; but instead of trying to speak to her on her terms, everyone around her expects her to understand the world in a neurotypical way. But not An; he seems to take her as she is, speaking to her in his own quiet and poetic way. Somehow, the codes he uses get through to her.
While people care about Star, they ask her about how she's going to take care of herself, not who she is or what she wants. They want to ignore the horrible abuse she suffered and how it's adversely affected her, rather than truly help her on her own terms. So An seems to offer a lifeline. Star and An start texting each other in companionship - her from her hospital bed, he from the rooms of friends. An has a network he can rely on, and identity he has painstakingly forged, one that he is at least somewhat free to express. His love of Chinese opera and Celine Dion, his dream to be a trophy wife, his gender dysphoria. He is completely accepted by Star.
But both are still trapped by a system that doesn't seem to want them, that won't accept anything outside some arbitrary 'norm'. Mackenzie frames the camera and sound to Star and An's perspective; it often feels tight and confined, we look at the characters sideways and so closed in as to miss the bigger picture. This is the scrutiny to which An and Star are subjected.
Star and An's connection might be brief, but it is deep and there is joy. Star might be a little clingy, and An might be a bit obscure to her, but they find a bond that often comes from people who have so little in common as to have only each other to see and hear in honestly. The music that patterns their lives seems like the punctuation of their hearts - like bubbles of joy, complex yet arising from the strength they give each other to get over this mountain in the middle of their lives.
Queens of the Qing Dynasty gives us two queer characters we don't often see on screen in this context - a place far removed from the centre, often without the necessary resources or support, where their abilities are challenged by unrealistic expectations. And yet, in forging their bond, they find that it is through bonds between humans that we can survive this strangs and surreal existence.
Queens of the Qing Dynasty opens on Friday, May 5th at the Metrograph NYC, expanding soon to other cities.
Queens of the Qing Dynasty
- Ashley McKenzie
- Ashley McKenzie
- Sarah Walker
- Ziyin Zheng
- Xue Yao